Thursday, May 29, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #130

[Guest-blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]


A few years ago on the John Byrne Message Board, a friend of Byrne’s posted an old piece of paper he’d found, with a list of Uncanny X-Men issues from the 120s all the way up to 150, with a couple of words after each number – in Byrne’s handwriting – detailing what the corresponding issue would be about. It’s a fascinating peak into how things were originally meant to go down. One of the first deviations between the well-laid plan and the awry-reality occurs at Uncanny X-Men #130, which was originally meant to be the end of the two-part Kitty Pryde/White Queen arc (itself only the first act of the Dark Phoenix saga). But by this time, plans have changed, and now issue 130 is used to accommodate the editorially mandated first appearance of Dazzler – a disco-themed mutant superhero created pretty much by committee (a group of Marvel creators that included neither Byrne nor Claremont).

As with Claremont’s attack on Shooter’s edicts through dialogue between Scott and Xavier in Uncanny #129, here Claremont barely disguises his mockery of Shooter’s attempt to cash in on the popularity of disco. e.g., Scott’s dialogue upon entering the music club where Dazzler is performing: “Is this where old discos go to die?”

Because the addition of Dazzler to this storyline was a relatively new development shoehorned into Claremont and Byrne’s plot, they are forced to essentially rehash the plot of the previous issue. To wit: half the team goes to recruit a new mutant; they are attacked by Hellfire Club mercenaries in armor keyed to counteract their powers; they realize that each mercenary is only outfitted to counter one superpower, and by switching opponents are able to turn the tide in their favor. The previous issue ended when the White Queen showed up at the last minute and took everyone down. Here, instead, Scott, Jean and Nightcrawler take Dazzler with them and head to Chicago to rescue their captured teammates. Not a lot of variation, but at this point the Claremont/Byrne/Austin team is so remarkably fluent that they can make just about anything seem cool, even repetitive fight scenes.

In order to keep up story interest, they also inch the larger Wyngarde-seduction plot forward. Back in Uncanny #125, Wyngarde began using holographic illusions to make Jean believe she is having “time-slips” into the late 18th century. “Dazzler” contains the fourth such “time-slip” sequence, ending provocatively with Jean transforming into the Black Queen, basically a black-corseted version of Emma Frost. We are two issues from the culmination of this subplot, and again the controlled pacing by Claremont and Byrne is marvelous.

In retrospect, the expansion of the Dark Pheonix due to editorial interference is something of a happy accident. The storyline ends up being nine parts, comprising three acts which in turn are three parts each: a trilogy of trilogies. It’s an elegant design, and – amazingly – a largely accidental one.

[It is really telling that Dazzler and Shadowcat are created around the same time -- the one made by editorial mandate will become a joke; Kitty is still a major character now -- this week in Astonishing X-Men.]


Ultimate Matt said...

That's interesting that Dazzler was forced on them - I never knew that. I remember reading that issue back in middle school and thinking it was weird that they seemed to be kinda-sorta mocking their own new character... thanks for clearing that up. Also interesting that Dazzler ended up being a mainstay on the X-Men for a while during the Australia years, and then later Claremont hand-picked her for his "New Excalibur" team. Both Claremont projects that are considered sort of B-Level - maybe thats why he used her?

Ultimate Matt said...
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Stephen said...

Another good analysis.

I think that one reason the repetitive structure worked is that it had a different outcome: after the first battle, the X-men were defeated; after the second, they won -- in both cases by a last-minute assist (White Queen/Dazzler). Then, with the second team going to rescue the first, it ends up as quite a tidy little structure (divide; capture; elude capture; rescue capture). Rather than repetitious, it reads as a deliberate parallel.


Anonymous said...

As much as Dazzler was created to cash in on a fad, she grew to surpass that fad. As the '80s progressed she was more of a 'Flashdance' type of entertainer, then became a superhero who longed to pursue her musical career but couldn't because she was a mutant. She headlined her own series, guest-starred all over the place, had a graphic novel where she was "outed" as a mutant, co-starred in a (now forgotten) mini-series with the Beast, and as stated above, was a mainstay of the X-Men during their 'Australia' era. Many writers took a one-note concept and did quite a bit more with it.

neilshyminsky said...

What's funniest about Dazzler and the reason for creating her is that it comes years too late - disco is already seriously uncool by the time this comic is published. They'd do well to update her, but this debut is a stinker.

Jason said...

U.Matt -- I think it's Ann Nocenti's work on the Beauty and the Beast miniseries that sold Claremont on Dazzler. He clearly doesn't have much patience for her here, but Nocenti gave her an interesting new dimension, turning her into a "fame addict." Claremont liked that enough and, while Nocenti was still the editor on Uncanny X-Men, decided to take it and run with it. I like what he did with Dazzler once he imported her into the series. (Marc Silvestri, who drew most of the issues that feature Dazzler as member of the team, is purportedly a fan of the character as well.)

Stephe -- YES! Exactly. I may have written something similar to what you wrote in my thing for Uncanny 131. If I didn't, I should've. Also, thanks for catching that bit I missed -- that Dazzler's "last-minute assist" mirrors the White Queen's. Brilliant!

Anon -- The series that Dazzler headlined was, I thought, pretty weak. And Jim Shooter's writing on that graphic novel ... damn. Makes his work on Secret Wars look like Tolstoy. But the Beauty and the Beast mini (though indeed forgotten) has some intriguing stuff. Ann Nocenti is one of superhero comics' unsung champions. Her work was way ahead of its time.

Neil -- yeah, hence Scott's line "Is this where old discos go to die?" I have to admit, I have some admiration for Claremont's attempt to suggest that Alison's talent surpasses her genre (The key line from Scott is something like "I know squat about disco, but this girl is good!"). But yeah, ultimately he and Byrne just don't sell her, do they?

Anonymous said...

Aw man, so much hate for Shooter!

Well, some of it is deserved. I will say this, though: any criticism of Shooter coming from Byrne should be taken with a big, big grain of salt. Byrne came to hate Shooter rather a lot, and can't be considered an impartial source.

As to this issue, yeah, it's sort of a filler -- but note that this, and the one before it, are the first examples of a now-classic trope: "X-Men racing the bad guys to meet and recruit a new mutant". This has since become hardwired into X-mythos... it's been used a hundred times in the comics since then, was central to the movies, and ended up being the plot of every other episode of the "X-Men: Evolution" cartoon.

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

Also, I think you're being a little hard on poor Dazzler.

1) There's some complicated backstory here, that goes a bit further than "a character made up by a committee to catch the disco craze". IIUC, the idea was to do a movie -- Bo Derek was considered for the lead at one point! -- while at the same time launching a comic book tie-in that would be sold only in comic book stores. This would bring movie fans into the stores, presumably, while comic book fans would go to the movies...

Well, it didn't happen; the only part of the scheme that survived was marketing Dazzler #1 as the first-ever comic-shop-only mainstream comic magazine. Which is amazing when you think about it, since today pretty much all Marvel and DC comics are comic-shops-only.

(And why create Dazzler instead of using a more traditional Marvel character? Because this was 1979 and CGI didn't exist yet. So there was no way to make an X-Men movie, or even a decent Spider-Man movie. Part of the mandate for Dazzler was to create a character whose powers would translate to celluloid... presumably by pointing a strobe light at the camera, but whatever.)

Anyway, in that light, pushing Dazzler into the X-Men was more of an honor than a curse: see, here's this character we want to use in a movie! If this works out, it'll be such a feather in your caps! -- Yeah, that's an upper management perspective, but the point is it wasn't completely daft at the time.

2) If you look at all the characters introduced by Claremont in, say, the first 100 issues? Basically you have two runaway hits for new X-Men (Kitty and Rogue) and two strong villains who'd be around forever after (Mystique and the White Queen).

After them you have a very mixed bag of also-rans, ranging from the okay (Moira McTaggert, Caliban) through the so-so (Arcade, Black Tom Cassidy, Corsair) to the mercifully forgotten (Amanda Sefton, Binary, Callisto, Lockheed, Stevie Hunter, Cyclops' short-lived post-Jean girlfriend, whose name I can't remember and won't look up).

On that scale, Dazzler comes closer to the top than the bottom. Claremont and Byrne gave her reasonably interesting powers and some decent visuals -- look at that cover! Her subsequent descent into suckage was something else again.

Two new characters introduced; one was a big hit and permanent addition to the team, the other an uninspired but decent B-lister that is still around today. That's not so bad.

Doug M.

Jason said...

Dang it, Doug, I wish I weren't so busy this week. So much to discuss!

But one thing I have to comment on -- these are not the first instances of the trope wherein the X-Men race bad guys to recruit a new mutant. That goes back to Lee/Kirby -- it was the premise of about half the X-Men issues that Lee/Kirby did together. The first time was issue 6, when Xavier and Magneto raced to recruit ... the Sub-Mariner, of all people.

But this is the first time Claremont/Byrne do it, of course.

More when I have a free moment!

wwk5d said...

Binary? She existed long before as Carol Danvers, and since the late 90s, has been going strong. Kurt Busiek brought her back to the Avengers in her classic look, and she's still been a member throughout the last decade. She even has her own series (not sure if it's still going), but unlike say, Amanda Sefton, she def doesn't fit under the 'forgotten' category.

Aaron Forever said...

forgive me for being so late, I'm just now reading, so the chances of anyone responding to these comments is pretty much nil, but...

from what I remember, Dazzler was originally conceived as a co-owned cross-promotion with Casablanca records, which was a disco label. Donna Summer was their big star and the character was supposed to be analogous to her. in fact, she was originally going to be black. (google "black dazzler" for an image.) I think Casablanca even gave Marvel some money to design & develop her and launch her solo title. but by the time Marvel intruduced her, Casablanca had backed out, disco was dying (I don't recall if the Disco Demolition put on by Steve Dahl & Garry Meier in Chicago had taken place yet or not), and Donna Summer had left or was about to leave Casablanca.

Marvel went ahead with it anyway, for whatever reason.